The restaurant business is as tough as they come. The keys to a successful restaurant are among the most sought-after secrets by owners and managers. What makes it work? What brings customers in the door? What makes them come back? What encourages customers to tell their friends and family to give it a try? Amarjit Randhawa, owner of University Place’s India Mahal, might just have the answer to the secrets of a successful restaurant business. After all, India Mahal has been serving the South Sound with their brand of authentic Indian cuisine for more than 20 years.
Randhawa was born and raised in the city of Kapurthala in the Punjab state of Northern India. Even from a young age, he found joy in cooking. “I used to help my mom, and so she taught me how to cook,” he recalls. In 1984 Randhawa moved to the United States where he worked in an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC. In 1993, he headed west and settled in the South Sound. “I chose [the Pacific Northwest] because I liked the weather,” he says with a laugh. After a few years of managing an Indian restaurant in Fife, Randhawa decided he could make it on his own. “I like serving people,” he says. “I’m a public person. And then also in the Indian food business, you eat good.” On June 20, 1996, the original India Mahal opened its doors at 3547 Bridgeport Way. Since then, the restaurant has flourished.
That is not to say the India Mahal was without its share of struggles. In 2004, the University Place City Hall Project forced the restaurant to relocate to its new location at 1905 Bridgeport Way. “We had a little bit of difficulty because [the city] didn’t give us any money and very short notice,” says Randhawa. “And I didn’t want to leave University Place. I wanted to stay here. So we looked and looked and looked, and we found this place. We were very happy to find it here and to stay in University Place. We have a lot of repeat customers, and they like us, and we like them. And so it worked out very well, thank God.”
Aside from these few roadblocks, India Mahal has remained a staple in University Place. One reason for this success is the food itself. With influences from traditional Punjabi recipes, as well as some learned from his own mother, Randhawa takes great pride in everything he makes. Of particular note, Randhawa recommends the Butter Chicken (chicken pieces cooked in a mild sauce with tomatoes and green spices), the Daal Murg (boneless chicken pieces cooked in creamed lentils), or the Gosht Masala (choice of lamb, beef, or goat cooked with ground spices, tomatoes, onions and green bell peppers). For the vegetarian crowd, be sure to check out the Aloo Gobi (cauliflower and potatoes cooked in spices) and the Channa Masala (garbanzo beans and potatoes cooked in a spicy gravy). There is also a wide variety of fresh baked breads, including the Kashmiri Naan (super fine flour bread stuffed with almonds, coconut, raisins and sugar) and the Spinach Naan (super fine flour bread with cilantro, chunky masala and spinach). For those looking to try a bit of everything, be sure to check out the lunch buffet that is available from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or order the Pride of Punjab specialty dinners for two.
Another secret is hard work. Randhawa is well aware of the time and sacrifices that are needed to make a restaurant work. “I work 12-hour days, seven days a week,” he says. “I like working and serving the public. And it makes me feel good at the end of the day. I give you good food, and plus I make a living.” When he can take a little time for himself, Randhawa likes to go back to his roots in Kapurthala and visit family.
Yet if one were to ask Randhawa what he thinks the true secret to his success is, he believes it is the community that supports him. “I want to thank everybody for keeping me in business and trying our food. Customers are so important, and from my heart, I want to thank the community that support us and keep us in the business 21 years.”
For those looking to see what all the fuss is about, stop by, grab a cup of hot Indian Chai Tea and let Randhawa and team show you why they have been in business for over two decades.
The India Mahal is open seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Saturday and 12:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Sunday.